Emotional support animals made headlines this week when NBC reported that airline passengers have “found a loophole to bring all kinds of animals on board.”
The segment, which follows similar network news reports this year, noted that people are bringing more than dogs and cats with them for emotional support on airplanes. Recent flights have included a rooster, kangaroo, and pot-bellied pig. (The latter became so disruptive on a US Airways flight that the pig and its owner were removed.)
The reports suggest that many of the pet owners pretend to need the animals for support when in fact they’re really just trying to save money.
Emotional support animals, protected under the Air Carrier Access Act, provide natural, untrained emotional support to people, including those with psychological issues such as anxiety or depression. When proper documentation is provided, they can accompany a passenger for free. Dogs, cats, and birds not needed for emotional support can also fly with a passenger for a one-way fee that’s typically $125. Checking them as domestic luggage can cost from $200 on up, depending on the kennel size or the animal’s weight.
The Department of Transportation has no rules about what type of animal is allowed or how many animals can fly on any one flight.
Cheaters get help online
While no data is available that proves that there are more service animals on flights now than in the past or that people are gaming the system, anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s likely, thanks in part to online businesses that make it easy to do so . . . for a fee. Spend $150 and less than 10 minutes completing an online form and you can secure the required documentation, including a letter from a licensed health care professional verifying your need for the service animal – all without meeting or talking to the professional.
At Oakland University’s Center for Human Animal Interventions, we are all about the value animals bring to people. That’s why we love that people who need their pet’s support when flying have that option, just as they do with their housing.
We also know that many emotional support animals are untrained, and untrained animals, especially dogs, can create problems in public. Without training, there’s potential for barking, snapping, and biting, all of which can impact the safety of other airplane passengers (not to mention problems created for those who are allergic to animals).
As animal activists and as passengers, we find the possibility that pet owners are being dishonest both frustrating and alarming. The cheaters could ultimately make it harder, or more expensive, for those who have a legitimate need to travel with their pet to do just that.
What do we do about it?
What’s the solution? Eliminating the online service providers that let pet owners get the emotional support animal documentation needed for airline travel from a complete stranger might be a good start.
We’d also like to see a national agency or organization establish more definitive guidelines that might include a certification letter from the pet owner’s own licensed health care professional rather than from anyone willing to write the letter, too.
A few simple changes, when enforced, could weed out the budget flyers so that those with a diagnosed need can benefit from flying with an emotional support animal while other passengers feel less like they’re traveling on Noah’s Ark.
What do you think would improve the situation?